New York City – American first lady Jill Biden will arrive in Tokyo this week to attend the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics and, after the pomp and pageantry, bows and handshakes, she must eat.
For an American president or first lady to dine out in Tokyo in the company of a Japanese Prime Minister, in the recesses of Ginza Station or in a Roppongi izakaya, is a symbolic act. It is a decades-old tradition in which the dishes and restaurants, judged and studied by critics and spectators, are tied to presidential personalities and quirks. The eyes of the world are fixed on Japan, on Biden and on the plates set before her.
Even before the Tokyo Olympics became, in the words of Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, “the light at the end of this dark tunnel,” they promised reconstruction from the 3/11 triple disaster. The games would mark an economic revival and a national re-entrance onto the global stage with the promise of omotenashi, a supposed special, if slightly essentialized, “Japanese hospitality.”
“We will offer you a unique welcome. In Japanese, I can describe it in one single word. O-mo-te-na-shi,” said Christel Takigawa, a Japanese announcer, at the Tokyo Olympic presentation in Buenos Aires in 2013. Japanese culture and food, packaged as attractive and cool, was to be the culmination of a decades-long “Cool Japan” campaign, which exported Japanese material culture and imported tourists.
But with the fourth state of emergency, during which Biden arrives, restaurants, bars, and other establishments that serve alcohol will be prohibited from doing so. Spectators are barred from Olympic events, and the porous Olympic bubble, which separates athletes from the public, means that many foreign guests cannot experience the promised omotenashi. In some cases, geopolitical tensions have simmered into food at the Games: the South Korean team announced that it will screen ingredients for radiation and prepare its own meals for their athletes. Elsewhere in the Olympic village, where COVID cases rise by the day, athletes must drink alone, in their rooms.
It is not yet clear if officials and dignitaries, like Biden, will be held to the same standard of restrictions as athletes and Olympic staff. Bach quarantined for three days on arrival, followed by a trip to the Olympic Village and then to Hiroshima, where he was met by anti-Olympic protestors. What is clear, however, is that Biden’s visit will be carefully choreographed. If she eats out in the capital, it will be symbolic, because where dignitaries — especially American dignitaries — eat on official state visits matters. And here, to commemorate Biden’s visit, we look at some of the notable, symbolic and comedic episodes of American presidents and spouses when they wined and dined in Japan.
President Jimmy Carter, who was in office from 1977-81, took his family to Roppongi yakitori shop Kushihachi, introduced to the president years earlier by Richard Halloran, a former correspondent at The New York Times. It was a secretive visit, devoid of press, a family outing commemorated with the president’s signature hung on the wall in the restaurant.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, dined at Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s cottage in Hinode, in western Tokyo. The President and first lady arrived via the Marine One helicopter to cheers and a flutter of American and Japanese flags. The two couples sat on the floor, and the prime minister poured the nihonshu. The president and first lady ate sashimi and Kobe beef, and drank tea prepared by Nakasone himself.
But not all state dinners were ridden by near-diplomatic scandal. At a now-mythical event in 1992, President H. W. Bush, after a day of tennis with Emperor Akihito, grew nauseous and flustered. He “turned white as a sheet,” one observer said, and vomited into Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap, inspiring parodies and comic skits on both sides of the Pacific. In 2002, his son, President George W. Bush, with Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, visited Gonpachi, a kitschy izakaya in Roppongi. The restaurant, famed in Japan and abroad as the model for a set in “Kill Bill,” certainly set a tone.
The most epicurean of presidents has been Barack Obama, and his dining exploits have reinvigorated and transformed the meaning of American presidents eating out in Tokyo. This was the president who ate bun cha in Hanoi’s Old Quarter with Anthony Bourdain. They sat on blue stools and drank beer, sleeves rolled up. This was not a president to squander the culinary promises of Tokyo.
On April 23, 2014, in Ginza Station, behind a set of sliding doors and at the 10-seat counter of Sukiyabashi Ginza, Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both tieless, ate sushi. This was six years after Bourdain’s visit to the restaurant, and three years after the release of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which propelled Jiro Ono and his restaurant to legendary status. The meal lasted 90 minutes, rather than the usual 20. “That’s some good sushi right there,” the president told the press.
Meanwhile, it was of little surprise that when President Donald Trump, whose love of the Big Mac and Filet-O-Fish is well documented, visited Tokyo, he gorged on burgers and steaks. In 2017, on his first official visit, Trump, together with Abe, ate a well-done burger prepared by Yutaka Yanagisawa, the owner of Munch’s Burger Shack, at Kasumigaseki Country Club. On the table sat a Heinz Ketchup bottle, next to what was (presumably) a Diet Coke. It was quintessentially American fare, suitable for the notoriously picky president of “America first.” In a later 2019 visit, Trump again imbibed on burgers, this time from The Burger Shop, which uses American beef and in his honor, retains The Stakehouse Burger on the menu.
Still, Trump did have his share of Japanese fare. In 2017, Trump and his wife, Melania, visited Ginza Ukai Tei, a teppanyaki restaurant in Ginza, for scallops and steak. As Bloomberg reported, the stocks of Ukai Co., which owns the restaurant, surged. In 2019, the couple visited Inakaya, a robatayaki restaurant, in Roppongi, where dishes were served via a paddle. But it’s bland fare compared to Obama, whose White House exuded culinary discernment: While first lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House, Trump served fast food.
Will the culinary fortitude of the Obama-era return with the Bidens? We can only watch closely for what Biden will eat. A “Biden burger” will be a symbol that America has once again claimed a seat at the table.
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